A panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently overturned the murder conviction of Erskine Johnson, now known as Ndume Olatushani, who was sentenced to death in 1985 for killing a Memphis grocery store manager during a robbery. The court ruled that he should be given a new trial because of what appears to be faulty witness testimony.
Johnson’s death sentence was thrown out in 1999 after the appeals court found out about a police report that had been withheld from Johnson and his attorneys at the time of his original trial. The report found that Johnson could not have fired a bullet that grazed a 16 year-old bystander during the robbery. This injury was used by the state to establish one of the aggravating circumstances needed to sentence Johnson to death.
That same appeals court also reviewed other police reports that had been withheld from Johnson showing that his fingerprints did not match those that were removed from the getaway vehicle. However, they decided only to overturn his death sentence and not to grant him a new trial after concluding that there was enough other evidence against him that it was unlikely the jury would have come up with a not guilty verdict. The state Supreme Court upheld this ruling on appeal in 2001 and Johnson was later resentenced to life in prison.
Last week, the state appeals court decided Johnson deserved a new trial after considering the evidence previously presented combined with new evidence that Johnson’s cousin, Elizabeth Starks, may have had reason to lie when she placed him at the crime scene in her testimony. Starks had strong connections to people, who at one time, were considered suspects in the case. It is also worth noting that in his original trial, Johnson and several witnesses testified that he was in St. Louis attending his mother’s birthday party at the time of the shooting in Memphis.
We applaud this ruling giving Johnson a new trial. Given the questionable evidence used in his conviction, a new trial has been a long time coming. However, we are also saddened that the victim’s family must continue to endure a legal process in which finality has, to this point, proven illusive. We hope that this new trial will be fair and balanced, bringing legal finality to the case, and that all parties can move forward.
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